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The Miami Herald
September 30, 2006 Saturday

For sneaker fans, it's all about the shoes

It's a Saturday night, and hundreds of teens and 20-somethings are filling a building in Miami's Design District. But the live band and tattoo and graffiti artists surround the real stars of the evening -- more than 1,000 sneakers lining the wall.

Here at Sneaker Pimps, a traveling exhibit of vintage and original gym shoes, South Florida's sneaker aficionados have come to pay homage.

Despite the muggy night, the revelers wear lace-up, rubber-soled gym shoes. No flip-flops or strappy sandals.

''It's a form of hip-hop expression,'' rapper Fat Joe said as he hung outside the one-day exhibit last week. One of hip-hop's biggest ''sneakerheads,'' Fat Joe has a pair of Nike Air Force Ones named after him. ''People respect the sneakers,'' he said.

Once a subset of basketball, hip-hop, graffiti and skater cultures, sneakerhead culture has stepped out on its own.

Some sneaker boutiques carry shoes ranging from $150 a pair to $1,000. Aficionados hook up through, eBay or

Today, many of them will be lining up for the release of an Air Jordan Retro V shoe nicknamed ''the grapes'' because of the purple in its design. They'll retail for about $150.

''It's going to take no more than 15 minutes to sell out,'' said Danny Waserstein, owner of downtown Miami's Shoe Gallery. The shop, at 244 NE First Ave., has been around for 30 years but started evolving into the sneaker boutique along with hip-hop fashion in the past 10 years.

Waserstein wouldn't say how many pairs of the Air Jordan Retro V he'll have, but, ``It's never enough.''

Leonard McNeal, 49, of Margate, works as a security guard at Sportswear Unlimited in Sunrise's Sawgrass Mills.

He labors under a quasi-barter system: He manages the early morning crowds during Jordan release dates, and he's guaranteed the chance to buy a pair. McNeal has traveled as far as Georgia to get a pair of rare Air Jordans.

''It's like a cult,'' said McNeal, who owns 178 pairs of sneakers.

``We have this underground following to get these shoes, and the everyday person doesn't seem to realize what's going on.''

At Culture Kings, a sneaker boutique at 4300 NE Second Ave. in the Design District, rows of brightly colored shoes line the walls. Owner Chris Oh said he uses contacts of friends in Japan to get the new releases ahead of the competition.

''It takes a lot of resources,'' said Oh, 25, who lives in Pembroke Pines.

Among the most coveted brands: Air Jordans, Air Force Ones, Nike SB Dunks, Adidas, Puma. But think retro, exclusive. Not shoes like Jay-Z's S. Carter or G-Unit Reeboks, found at any local mall.

''I'll wear a pair of $5 sneakers as long as I know that no one else has them,'' said Melvin Zantua, 24, of Doral.

From '80s rap songs such as Run DMC'sMy Adidas to the Buggin Out character in Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing -- who snapped when a man stepped on his brand new white Air Jordans -- America's shoe obsession is nothing new.

In 1985, the NBA banned the red and black Air Jordan I shoe, calling it ''too colorful,'' and fined Jordan for wearing them anyway.

''When Jordan hit, it was the big bang of sneaker culture,'' said Kevin Wildes, producer of It's the Shoes, an ESPN2 show that highlights celebrity sneaker collections.

Over the past five years, the sneaker culture has really blossomed. On the hit HBO show Entourage last season, movie star Vince pays $20,000 for a pair of custom-designed gold-leaf Air Force Ones painted by a graffiti artist for his homeboy.

At Sneaker Pimps' bleached-white gallery, it wasn't the break dancers, the live band or the graffiti artists getting the eye.

In a group of four or five friends, Crystal Salomon, 16, checked out a Justin Timberlake look-alike strolling by in multicolored Air Force One exclusives.

''Look at those,'' the high school junior told her pack of girls. Her friends look down.

She explains.

''People don't look at you, they look at your shoes,'' Salomon said, wearing a pair of military Air Jordan Retro IVs. ``He was cute, but I noticed the shoes first.''

Salomon, who attends Turner Tech High, said she must wear a uniform to school, so her sneaker collection is one way to distinguish herself.

''It's all about the shoes because it can't be about the clothes there,'' said Salomon, who buys her ''kicks'' with baby-sitting money.

At the exhibit, camera phones snap photos of $8,000 gym shoes designed by a graffiti artist.

''We have people who come to the exhibit, asking to take a shoe home,'' said Ron Crawford, spokesman for Sneaker Pimps, who is a skateboarder and owns a sneaker store in Philadelphia. ``Would you go to the Museum of Modern Art and ask to take one of their pieces home?''

Emmanuel Senra, 23, said he lost count of his collection at 200.

His love for sneakers started in middle school, and when he couldn't afford them, he'd buy a pair to wear, then return them.

Nowadays, Senra said some in his collection are worth $1,000. Much of his salary running his family's Big and Tall store in Miami-Dade is spent on finding rare shoes.

''Now, I have all the shoes I couldn't have back then,'' said Senra, who lives in Kendall.

Jahi McKenzie, 18, of Miami, was rocking a pair of Air Force Ones he nicknamed his Laffy Taffys for the orange, lime, maroon patent leather design. They shine at night.

''They just look crazy,'' said McKenzie, grinning.


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